Susan Orlean is known for making her readers care about people and things they may not have otherwise noticed. On the short list: German Shepherds, libraries, luxury condos, a 10-year old boy named Colin Duffy, and, of course, orchids.
Coming up on the 20th anniversary of the film “Adaptation,” itself an adaptation of her New York Times bestselling novel, The Orchid Thief, both the film and the book explore the all-consuming nature of passion through the lens of orchid enthusiast John LaRoche. The book, first published in 1998, became a runaway success and was later adapted into an Academy Award-nominated screenplay by Charlie Kaufman.
I spoke to Susan on the phone about what this milestone means to her coming out of a year-long pandemic, what we can learn from our obsessions, and how good storytelling hits at the heart of humanity, regardless of subject.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
As we sit in month 14 of this unprecedented time — it feels almost too obvious a place to begin — but what has the pandemic done to your writing? To your creativity?
I think any time that you limit the amount of input from the outside world, it changes things. I think we’re all stimulated by new data that comes in new images, new travel, new people, new conversations. Come to have your experiences so radically circumscribed by the pandemic, you’re in a circumstance that is in and of itself so new. And I don’t mean I enjoyed it, but I think anytime you are in a new environment, a new situation, it’s very stimulating.
I mean, there was a lot of despair, and a lot of boredom, and a lot of frustration, and a lot of fear. I would not recommend this to anybody looking for a good way to spend a year. But I think that there was also just the newness of this experience that was so extreme and so dramatic that it had its own merit in terms of jogging your brain a little bit.
For you personally, what did that look like?
First of all, I think we all desperately made the effort to describe this new world, and that alone was a kind of enduring and interesting challenge: How do you describe this truly unprecedented experience? And I think that that presented a new challenge, certainly for people in creative fields. How do you characterize this strange thing that we’re going through? How do you capture it? What does it feel like? How did it change the feeling of close friendships, and relationships, and your sense of space? To me that all was very profound and very interesting and a creative challenge that interested me a lot. It’s like diving into a volcano. It’s something that’s so unparalleled that you can’t help but find it fascinating.
Speaking of diving into the unknown, next year is the 20th anniversary of the film “Adaptation”, which was based off your book The Orchid Thief, which was based off of your New Yorker article by the same name. After this year, especially, what does this milestone mean?
It’s so — I mean it’s so shocking to me to think that we never have a really strong sense of time passing. It’s this truly ineffable experience and everything feels micro and then these micro moments then dissolve into a sweep of time. It seems almost unimaginable and for me to think 20 years. It feels like yesterday. The jokes are still funny. The insights are still sharp and the tone still feels incredibly original and that’s remarkable. It’s really an absolutely strange metric for me. In a way I find it so hard to believe that I wrote that book so long ago.
What do you think it is about (main character) John LaRoche’s story that has such staying power?
I wonder about that myself. I didn’t write the book thinking “Here is someone people will really relate to.” In fact, I felt quite the opposite: I thought “Here is a very strange eccentric guy who maybe will be off-putting to readers.” I am certainly very conscious of wanting to write something people will want to read, but I don’t shape what I’m writing into what I think people want to read. I work hard to make what I’m writing be irresistible to people, even if they don’t naturally have an interest in the subject.
I don’t think, “Oh, here’s a great antihero that readers will respond to.” I tend to go into stories from the exact other direction which is, “This is a guy who I find so fascinating and I’ve got to write this book to be so seductively interesting that people will read about it even despite themselves and despite their misgivings about the character.”
The simple answer could be, well, I succeeded. I seduced people into reading about John LaRoche, but I don’t think that’s the sum of it. I think I wrote the book for the reasons that I think people are drawn to his character. He embodied something very familiar, this ability to surrender yourself to some passion that you have and to define yourself by something that you really devote yourself to and that is actually a very familiar feeling.
Especially as writers, we’re diving into things that fully consume our curiosity. Do you think we ever really say goodbye to our subjects?
Well, that ended up really affecting me in writing the book. I kept looking at LaRoche as somebody who I had nothing in common with. I couldn’t imagine being a serial monogamist the way he was. He defined himself by tropical fish and then got rid of every single tropical fish. And then defined himself by orchids and got rid of all his orchids. It really felt almost threatening to me to think that you could be so devoted to something, so consumed by it, so identified by it and then walk away.
And as I was working on the book, it dawned on me like a thunderbolt. That was exactly the nature of my profession, particularly because I don’t cover a beat, because I’ve never returned to the same subject over and over again. I write a book about orchids: I’m learning everything about orchids, I’m studying orchids, I’m interviewing people about orchids, and then I’m done and I move on.
It was a bit of a shock to suddenly find myself realizing that. This is probably at the root of some of my fascination with [LaRoche] without me knowing it. I was seeing someone who did embody a lot of the facts of my life but I had never really quite noticed it.
With the wide range of subjects you’ve covered in your career, you’ve played a lot with form and tone. There’s the whimsy in your essay “Nice Doggy,” satirical humor in “My Life: A Series of Performance Art Pieces,” and of course your more traditional new journalistic style that you’re known for. What dictates the voice you choose for each piece?
I love the element of writing that can reinvent our expectation of not so much what a sentence is, but what the form and structure of a story could be. I love using the form to sort of further the point of the story. Sometimes it’s something that exists very subtly, or it’s an inspiration rather than something really overt. I’m more interested in storytelling that has the nature of the narration doubling down on the point of the story. At the very basis of nonfiction, you have to be a good reporter and you need to gather interesting information and stories. That is not about playing with form—these are the building blocks.
You can have serious, good, tough, interesting, perceptive reporting, and you can have a wonderful story, but I think my ambition is to have it resonate on another level, as well as the journalistic one. And that those elements of tone and vocabulary and structure are the tools you have to make that happen.
You have a new book On Animals, coming out this fall. What was the inspiration? Why animals, why now?
You know, over the years, even though I’ve been completely promiscuous in my subject matter and what I’ve written about it, I’ve written a lot about animals in very different stories. On one hand it’s very natural. On the other hand, they are really different stories. I mean, one is about the whale who played Willy. Another is about a dog who got lost in Atlanta and the crazy story of how his owners finally found him. Another is a story that I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic about a virus that kills rabbits and that is spreading around the globe — weirdly parallel to our own experience with COVID-19.
All of these stories are always an attempt to make sense of the world. And animals are a particularly good angle of the lash because of our intense relationship with them and the fact that they are these beings that are familiar but also absolutely strange. You just keep turning the lens this way in that way to try to capture a better perspective that helps you understand what life is all about.
Kelley Engelbrecht is a writer/essayist based in Chicago and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia College. She also manages and edits Wonderfilled Magazine. Find her on Twitter @_kelleyjeanne.